Archive for September, 2013
I went to Burning Man a few weeks ago. It was the singular most incredible experience of my life. While I’d love to go again, I don’t actually need to go – it was quite sufficient as the Great Big Pivotal Moment in Mark’s Life.
I’m grateful to my colleagues last week for letting me land back into work gently. It’s strange to return to any “normal” life after Burning Man, even if “normal” is living in a summer house, overlooking a canal, 3 minutes walk from your office in Amsterdam, one of the most creative and interesting cities in the world. To be honest, I think it’s helped. Burning Man is of a scale and density very similar to Amsterdam. The layout’s similar too (U-shaped ring of streets). Except there aren’t any canals in the Black Rock desert. It’s hardly stopped raining since I got back to Holland, which I think is somebody trying to make a point. And everyone gets around on bikes.
And Amsterdam has Albert Heijn, which you don’t get at Burning Man.
I’m not sure how to explain the experience, really, so I’m going to start by listing out my Burning Man Spotify playlist, which I compiled a week before in London. I played it in the car as we drove north from Reno into the desert proper, with my friends Beth Whiteside and James Byous. It was a brilliant moment that I’ll never forget and set in train so much discussion about other music between us through the week.
The Journey to Burning Man playlist (it’s online here too)
1. “The Rolling People.” The Verve, off Urban Hymns
2. “Circle of Life.” Elton John
3. “The Winner Takes It All.” Abba, off Super Trouper
4. “Tosca: Vissi d’arte.” Maria Callas / Georges Pretre, Orchestre De La Société des Concerts
5. “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Nina Simone
6. “Flash.” Queen
7. “Discreet Music.” Brian Eno
8. “Sweet Bitter Love – Demo.” Aretha Franklin, off “Rare and Unreleased Recordings from the Golden Reign of the Queen of Soul”
9. “Twisted Tenderness.” Electronic
10. “There Must Be An Angel Playing With My Heart.” Eurythmics
11. “(There is) No Greater Love.” Amy Winehouse
12. “Eagle.” Abba, off The Album
13. “Burn My Shadow – Radio Slave Remix.” UNKLE, featuring Ian Astbury
14. “Leave Right Now.” Will Young, off Friday’s Child.
15. “Holiday Inn.” Elton John, off Madman Across the Water
16. “Gianni Schicchi: O Mio Babbino Caro.” Maria Callas
17. “Music.” John Miles
Bonus Tracks (added later)
18. “Head over Heels.” Tears for Fears
19. “Your Song (From the Rehearsal Montage Scene).” Craig Armstrong, off Moulin Rouge 2
Posted on 16 September 2013. (Photo. Fuelling up in the Castro, San Francisco, as we head out of town. James posing with pump. Me returning from arguing with cashier – “there’s no trust in this country”.)
In the grand scheme of things, I have two skills I can fall back on that I think will always be useful. The first is helping people use computers, and the second is my ability to write. When I say write, I mean write quite well. Some aspects of how this skill developed are obvious – the amazing Maggie Richard, my English teacher at Frodsham High School in Northwest England – taught me to write critically, but with humour too – she’d have us roaring with laughter at Jane Austen characters (Mrs Elton, in Emma, stands out). Yet I didn’t get straight “A”s in English or anything.
It was a more industrial moment that turned me into a good writer. In the mid 1990s I was propelled into the IT industry with the task of writing press releases. Like many industries this one was full of jargon and people who wanted to use jargon to sound more sophisticated, more important or, most often, to baffle people into spending more money than they had hoped to. But I was having none of it and just wanted to explain things better. Within a few years I’d gained a reputation amongst my peers for being able to nail something down in a few paragraphs. I remember a 1997 performance review by my boss, who made it clear the main reason he hadn’t fired me was that I could write better about really geeky stuff (digital imaging sensors anyone?) than the other people in the company. He thought I was a bit of a loose cannon otherwise.
I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve spent time over the past month with my friend James Byous from California, who can write songs, and sing them too – really well – while playing the guitar. When I say really well, I mean he can melt a room, with soulful meaning and a voice that somehow manages to mix Jonny Cash and Freddie Mercury. With a bit of John Lennon rasp thrown in for good measure. Actually it’s no one else’s voice – it’s James’s voice.
All this, for me, is the difference between flying transatlantic in a bumpy, vibrating piston engined 1930s plane, versus stepping for the first time onto a Boeing 707 jet in 1960 and soaring above the weather at 600mph. This profound ability brings so many skills to the fore – an ability to interpret and understand how you feel about yourself and about others, a confidence to reveal and structure these feelings and ideas, a belief that your writing is strong enough to stand alongside the very greatest work by other very famous people, and a determination to be heard and understood – to grab people by the heart and take them with you.
This revelation has caught me at an odd moment. This summer has been without doubt the most extraordinary of my life to date, with lots of new sights, sounds, experiences, and people. I’ve felt the most “me” that I’ve ever felt. But I’ve somehow felt unable to capture or express the experience in writing – up to now. Maybe there’s an argument that sometimes a writer can’t write and take in really big experiences at the same time. I admit to being a classic boy who can’t multi-task – try having a conversation with me when I’m driving, and it will be hopelessly fragmented, for example. My car doesn’t even have a cup holder and I really don’t care. Drinking coffee on the move is beyond me. So maybe writing about my summer while experiencing it has been more than I could deal with.
And maybe I’m reaching the point where I’m ready to start writing again.
My friend and colleague Mark Nitzberg and I were chatting last month, while he drove me through Berkeley in his Prius – while conducting an investor call and taking me to Target to buy a tent for Burning Man… (Nitzberg is a boy who can multi-task). I was explaining to him my increasing sense that the function I preside over at Akvo – “Communications and PR” – has basically two components. “Communications” is describing what you do as an organisation really well, and “Promotion” is pushing that communication out in front of people with deliberate targeting. I said that I felt we did pretty well at the first component but this was the first job I’d had where I was trusted to rein back on the latter.
“Ah,” said Nitzberg, while easing through a 4 way stop junction, “So maybe it’s the case that COMMUNICATION + PROMOTION = COMMOTION.”
(Which is an example of how Mark nails things that others can’t.)
For those of us who have lived through the whole transition of personal computers from being things to write documents on (and then print off and post to others), to amazingly powerful global communication devices that fit in our pocket (and will soon be on our wrists, and in our glasses), this brings up the issue of restraint. It’s possible to carpet-bomb people with everything you do, but in the end it destroys credibility, deafens (and loses) the person at the other end and leads to the creation of all kinds of banal content designed to attract attention. A lack of restraint leads to commotion.
Thomas Bjelkeman and I have long coined the term “discoverable communication” for how we approach things at Akvo. It’s about making what you do visible to people who want to follow it, and making it easy for people to drill down through the layers, when they want to get to know us. It’s about subtle ongoing publishing that does not intrude, but rather intrigues, or simply interests people every now and again. I don’t need everyone to understand exactly what we do, but I want to make sure that if someone needs to understand what we do, they can quickly do so. And I want everyone else to feel comfortable that we understand what we’re doing and feel good about that.
When I was a kid my nanna and grandad had this plastic game called “Hoopla”, which my brother and I loved playing. It was a simple plastic cross, that had five posts sticking up. You threw small hoops and tried to get them to hook onto one of the posts. The winner got the most hoops landed right.
So often I witness the profound failure of organisations to embrace new ideas, with bureaucrats putting up barriers to resist change. And those of us who are creative and expressive are meant to devise yet another tedious proposal, playing by somebody else’s rules, ticking off their checklists, circling endlessly in their bumpy clouds, to achieve the outcome that we see as so obvious and inevitable. It’s professional Hoopla.
I feel sure deep down that our success will be rooted in being honest and open about what we do, laying it out for all to see, explaining it based on facts, but doing so in a way that inspires. But I’m left with the curious sense that those who cannot write well, who cannot nail down and express ideas, build a machine that forces those who can through hoops, while they make their careers out of judging ours. I think that’s something we need to rebel against.
Posted on 16 September 2013.